There has been a lot in the news recently about how this whitehose.gov petition has gotten more votes than any other before it. I went and took a look at it and here is the text :
Legally recognize Westboro Baptist Church as a hate group.
This group has been recognized as a hate group by organizations, such as The Southern Poverty Law Center, and has repeatedly displayed the actions typical of hate groups.
Their actions have been directed at many groups, including homosexuals, military, Jewish people and even other Christians. They pose a threat to the welfare and treatment of others and will not improve without some form of imposed regulation.
I went to lookup what a "hate group" is since I hadn't heard the term before. I then tried to find out what it means for a group of people to be "Legally recognize(d)" as a hate group but couldn't find anything since being a hate group doesn't mean you commit crimes.
The last sentence of the petition is what reminds me of the scary side of direct democracy. It says :
- "Their actions" : By what I can tell (again from wikipedia), the actions being referred to is their picketing of funerals and other events. They apparently picket things six times a day on average. So though it's ugly, what we're talking about here is speech. Like the first amendment kind.
- "have been directed at many groups, including homosexuals, military, Jewish people and even other Christians."
- "They pose a threat to the welfare and treatment of others" : This is deceptive phrasing. To threaten something it must exist already. I don't feel like people currently have a legal right to welfare ("The state or condition of doing or being well" OED) or to be treated well by others. There sure is law the defines things you can't do to other people (assault, steal from, etc), but holding a horribly offensive sign that makes them despair and cry isn't (currently) one of them. This reminds me of the excellent (albeit brief) summary of what crime is in the Illustrated Guide to Law.
- "and will not improve without some form of imposed regulation" : Ugh. Ok, so the solution being proposed is to regulate their speech because it's so horrible.
I'm disappointed to find that the most voted for petition of all time on whitehouse.gov is a petition calling for the government to control, govern, direct and restrict the deplorable but legal speech of a group of horrible but law abiding people. I'm scared by the willingness of the majority to want to strip the civil liberties of a minority. I've been previously saddened but am now thankful that these whitehouse petitions are toothless exercises in making the populace feel like their engaged in a direct democracy somehow.
I'll leave out the obligatory clarification that I don't agree with the beliefs of the Phelps' since thankfully the Westboro Baptist Church's speech is so incredibly deplorable that nobody considers the possibility that anyone would side with their position based on their message.